Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
At last Hughes has gotten his first collected edition; it is overdue. The editors have attempted to collect every poem (860 in all) published by the writer in his lifetime, and have also provided a brief but informative introduction, a detailed chronology and extensive textual notes that include the original date and place of publication for each poem. In fact, this edition corrects the many errors and omissions of the standard Hughes bibliography, and the editors plan to update the text as more unpublished work surfaces. Although Hughes is best known for his poems celebrating African African life, he was also a passionately political poet who paid dearly for his communist affiliations and radical views. The chronological arrangement of the poems allows the reader to follow the course of Hughes's career-long political engagement, though probably Hughes will mainly be read for the clarity of his language, his wise humor and his insight into the human condition. BOMC selection. (Nov.)
Coedited by Hughes biographer Rampersad (Vol. 1, LJ 8/86; Vol. 2, LJ 9/15/88), this is the most complete collection of Hughes's poems to date. Known for a few brilliant pieces, Hughes wrote many others-860 are here, and this after unpublished work and juvenalia were excluded. Quite a few are songs or what the editors appropriately term "doggerel." Works are in chronological order, except for two improtant books printed intact: Montage of a Dream Deferred and Ask you Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz. A short preface, a time line of Hughes' life, and historical endnotes are also included. The time line is as moving as any of Hughes's poems; together, they document an intensely felt life of hardship and perseverance. Persecuted for his leftist politics as well as his skin color, Hughes just kept on writing. Beyond their relative merits-their rhymes, song rhythms, and sometimes dogmatic approach will not appeal to all-these poems are full of beauty, qualified joy, and sharp illustrations of African American life in our century. For every collection.-Ellen Kaufman, Dewey Ballantine Law Lib., New York
In an early poem titled "Formula," Hughes (1902-67) mocks the belief that poetry should be about "lofty things." For this revolutionary African American poet, poetry had to be about "earthly pain." This poem also prefigures the central controversy of Hughes' literary career: he was celebrated as the poet laureate of Americans of African descent just as often as he was castigated for being trite and simplistic. In their succinct and informative introduction to this definitive and invaluable collection, Hughes biographer Rampersad and modern American poetry expert Roessel don't deny the fact that Hughes' newspaper work has been described as doggerel, but the 860 poems gathered here soar far above such nitpicking. All are published works, and all are exceptional. Hughes was a "democratic" poet who wanted his work to be accessible in both subject matter and style, so he wrote poems charged with the immediacy of life and the rhythm of speech and song. Influenced by the Bible, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Walt Whitman, Hughes' aesthetics were based on African American music, especially the plaintive pulse of the blues and the swoops and growls of jazz. Always a man of his times, Hughes wrote about southern violence, Harlem street life, poverty, prejudice, hunger, hopelessness, and love. Many of his poems are portraits of people whose lives are impacted by racism and sexual conflicts. During the 1930s, Hughes' poems took on a more international and politically radical tone; it was during this decade that Hughes acquired a damaging and inaccurate reputation for being a Communist. In spite of being condemned by critics on both the Left and the Right, Hughes stayed true to his muse, chronicling the black American experience and contrasting the beauty of the soul with the loathsomeness of circumstance.
Read an Excerpt
Juke Box Love Song
I could take the Harlem night
and wrap around you,
Take the neon lights and make a crown,
Take the Lenox Avenue busses,
And for your love song tone their rumble down.
Take Harlem's heartbeat,
Make a drumbeat,
Put it on a record, let it whirl,
And while we listen to it play,
Dance with you till day
Dance with you, my sweet brown Harlem girl.
From the Hardcover edition.